The Lightning Thief: When Good YA Fantasy Books Become Bad YA Fantasy Movies

Denisa and I watched The Lightning Thief last night, mainly because it arrived in the mail from Netflix, since I’d forgotten to bump it down in my queue. (My queue has since been updated.) I hadn’t heard much good about this movie going in, so my expectations were low. Why did I watch it anyway? Because I loved the original book. It had a strong YA main character, with a first person point of view that kept things light and fun. I read it before most people had–before it became another “Next Harry Potter” candidate, so I felt a strong affinity for the book.

So . . . low expectations, big budget movie–usually a good combo for me to at least have a decent movie watching experience.

Not this time.

This move has almost everything you could ask for in a popcorn movie. Really good effects. Breakneck pace. Big stars (Uma Thurman, Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean). A plucky trio of adventurers . . . what’s not to like?

Two huge, Parthenon-sized problems. First off is the fact that no time is spent developing the main characters at all. They come across as little more than playing pieces in a board game, with all the complexity of a red Sorry token. In the book, the first person point of view saturates the entire novel, putting us on Percy’s side and helping us root for him and like him as a character. That doesn’t work in a movie. They needed to take some time to ground the characters before sending them off on a rollicking adventure. Again, in the book, a significant amount of time is spent at Camp Halfblood, as Percy learns more about the world and the magic. In the movie, the pace just never lets up. One minute Percy’s finding out the Greek gods are real, the next he’s taking all of ten minutes to become a master swordsman, and then he’s off on a cross-country road trip. He’s too busy having things done to him for us to get to know him. That’s a big mistake.

The second problem is the way magic is used in the movie. Basically, whenever a problem needs to be solved, a new magic ability conveniently appears to solve it. Stuck fighting a hydra? Oh–Percy can summon water and make it do what he wants it to. Problem solved. I don’t want to give any more examples (trying to avoid too many spoilers), but magic can’t be used this way to provide satisfying climaxes. It just comes off as all too convenient.

In the end, I think what really sunk this movie was Chris Columbus’s decision to recreate as many of the cool effects scenes from the book as possible. This is true to form. He did the same in Harry Potter I, and I thought that movie was weak, too.

Directors, take note: when adapting a YA fantasy, character counts. You can’t gloss over it. Character comes before plot. Fans might be disappointed that you didn’t include Tom Bombadil, but they’ll be livid if you get Gollum wrong, or if Frodo comes across as too whiny. Make sense? Character before plot, no matter how much you feel like plot should come before character.

Character before plot.

One and a half stars for this one. Maybe two, if I’d been feeling generous. But I’m not.

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